The Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures tells an important story well, and for an audience that is usually underserved.
It’s been about 3 weeks since I’ve seen Hidden Figures (at a sold-out 3 PM showing, might I add) and since then, I’ve realized it is one of the more important pieces of art I’ve ever consumed.
Representation is at the forefront of the pop culture discussion these days, with women of color perhaps being the least represented group of all. Hidden Figures gives the us three intoxicatingly charming women of color leads, elevating a cookie-cutter (albeit true) story into a powerful glimpse at segregated America and how the struggle for equality was fought on fronts beyond our imagination.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures is predominantly the tale of Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a brilliant mathematician who would be integral in getting John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space during the height of the 1960s space race. Riding shotgun are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monàe), geniuses in their own right. All three ladies strive to climb up the ranks at NASA and the world at large, a world that does everything to hold them back because of their race and gender.
After a short opening depicting the brilliance of 8-year-old Katherine, the story starts in earnest as our three leads are stuck roadside on their way to the NASA offices. A white police offer stops by to assist (not without clumsy, nigh-racist remarks), but finds the women entirely capable of fixing their own vehicle. After being told of their vital work for NASA, the cop offers to them escort on the way to work, causing Mary to exclaim “Three Negro women chasing a white police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia in 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”
What follows is the story of these women’s contributions to NASA, both as brilliant minds and as pioneering African-American women. While Katherine performs calculations on the main space launch team, Dorothy manages the number crunchers (called “computers”), who are all women of color doing all the heavy math to pass along to their higher-ups. Later, as NASA purchases its first IBM mainframes, Dorothy and her team become proficient at FORTRAN to prepare for the oncoming computer revolution (and the jobs that come with it). Meanwhile, Mary is fighting to become the first black female engineer at NASA, which entails becoming the first black female student at a nearby school (by judge order).
The supporting performances range from adequate (Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison) to incredibly warm and charming (Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Colonel Jim Johnson, and Powell’s John Glenn). The movie never strays too far from its three protagonists, however, which are the film’s greatest strengths. In all three character arcs, the actors imbue their roles with a pathos befitting this era in American history.
The story is multifaceted in its depiction of racism, from casual racist remarks to institutional racism. The most brilliantly executed example is Katherine having to sprint a mile in high heels for a colored restroom, and then sprint back only to have to answer her boss as to why her bathroom breaks are so long. The sad truth is all the hallmarks of that era are still alive today, from the majority constantly moving the goal posts for persons of color to treating minorities as if they should be appreciative of what privileges white people grant them. A singularly powerful moment is when Dorothy’s superior Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) tells Dorothy that she doesn’t have “anything against y’all” (meaning black people), to which Dorothy lamentably responds “I know you probably believe that.”
The film holds up a mirror to its audience, making us examine questions of race and morality that still matter today. We see how white people can’t get out of their own way even when they try to help; we further witness how the problems of racism aren’t just specific acts or moments, but an unrelenting daily schedule, constantly trying to grind people into hopelessness. A common refrain in modern-day race discourse regarding casual/minor racism is “there are bigger fish to fry” or “this is much less important than (Example X) of racism.” Hidden Figures accentuates the folly in this reasoning, as we see how the minor things really aren’t so minor when people are marginalized, and that overcoming “casual” racism is a Herculean effort in its own right.
The film is not without its flaws, however. While Costner is fine in his turn as Katherine’s supervisor, the characterization felt off. Al Harrison is depicted as so focused on his job he’s essentially blind to the racism affecting Katherine, and when he gets light of it, gets a white-savior moment destroying the signs indicating the segregated restrooms. For a movie that works hard to capture the struggle of its time, Harrison’s racial obliviousness makes it hard to buy into the realism of that character.
Additionally, the story is very cookie-cutter, to the point where the audience can essentially guess how the film would play out from the opening scene. Character beats are mostly familiar and predictable, though no less rewarding in the end. Ultimately, the charm of the characters carries the movie beyond any narrative shortcomings. Though, I do feel it’s unfair to call the story “cookie-cutter” for the simple fact that it is a true story that I had never heard of, nor had anyone else with whom I saw this movie. These womens’ contributions and careers were unbeknownst to me, despite my being a person of color who once dreamed of being an engineer.
But, I’ll return back to my original thought on how important this film is. As of January 24th, Hidden Figures has grossed $87 million domestically, including besting Rogue One at the box office on consecutive weekends. My sold-out experience apparently was common; the commercial reception of the movie has been so positively abundant that the lead actresses have been renting out entire theaters for free public screenings. Given the subject matter, it’s warming to see audiences respond to this film, especially given the fraught racial tensions found in our political landscape today.
Hidden Figures is a bold rebuke of the Hollywood refrain of “there just aren’t roles for women of color” or “those projects won’t be profitable commercially.” It tells the story of not one but three black women contributing to some of the most significant achievements in American history, or more broadly, in human history. Not only does the importance of the narrative resonate today, it loudly declares that representation in art is not bane to the bottom line.